MIDDLETON, Wis. – Drive by the near-empty lot on University Avenue across from Willy Street Co-Op, and you see it for what it is.
When Anthony Gray looks, he sees what it can be, and he has high expectations.
“It was a perfect location for the type of development we’re doing,” Gray said.
In the spot that’s close to grocery stores, pharmacies, city hall and only a short walk from schools, Gray envisions a housing complex 39 units deep. Twenty of those units will be classified as affordable housing, and five will be designed for people with physical disabilities. The plan is almost set, with just final approval from common council left to go.
But Gray hopes the impact is far greater than that. He’s striving for social justice.
“Most of the ills that befall black and brown communities in this state and around the country stem directly from familial, financial instability,” he said.
His process will try to shake that, offering five people of color a chance to audit the development and learn how to do it themselves. When ground is broken and heavy machinery comes in, he’ll work with the subcontractors to get workforce development pipeline for people of color there too.
“These aren’t just living wage,” Gray said. “These are well-paying jobs that people who live around here and people of color really ought to have access to.”
The housing project has faced controversy to get to this point. In February, the city had to compromise with area neighbors to convert the plan from a four-story complex to a three-story one. That change caused Gray to lose his architect, his contractor and a “substantial amount of money,” he said. He also must tear down his cottage on the adjacent lot to keep the number of units in a shorter building.
“This has gone through a lot of community discussion,” said Mark Opitz, the city planner. “The developer revised his proposal to respond to concerns raised by the community.”
Opitz said he sees the project going smoothly from here on out, and Gray is happy to see that happen.
“Anyone whoever told you that anything worth doing in terms of social justice was going to be easy wasn’t honest with you,” Gray said. “It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to change people’s lives.”